Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Lateral Moves, Law Firm Mergers

The Degradation Of Law Firm Quality

If you’re hiring a lateral partner at this level, then quality is assumed….

If you’re using Bigg & Mediocre, then quality is assumed….

If you’re hiring only from the top ten percent at the top ten schools, then quality is assumed….

Let me start again:

By the time you get to major league baseball, quality is assumed.

Right. But I’d rather have Babe Ruth than a journeyman outfielder.

We instinctively realize that, in every endeavor known to man, there are true superstars. But, when we talk about lawyers, we somehow assume that they’re all fungible. Or, in the examples I just gave, that all the lawyers within a certain rarefied group are fungible. That’s just not true. There’s quality, and then there’s real quality. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Talent is nice; genius is better.

If you’re with me so far, then you don’t believe that all law firms are created equal; you don’t believe that all lawyers (or partners) within a single firm are created equal; and you understand that many law firms are basically incapable of true quality control….

Why do many law firms lose control of quality?

First, they grow by merger. When the great New York firm — Bigg & Better — chooses to expand by merging with another firm in London, the New York firm just gave up on quality control. Partners at the New York firm may have worked with a half dozen of the London lawyers, and those half dozen may be good. But the New Yorkers have done no more than meet and greet the remaining Londoners, so the New Yorkers are taking on faith that the other London partners are uniformly good. That’s almost surely not true.

As the New York firm merges with firms in other locations, the problem grows worse. (I’m not being elitist here; I’m being realistic. I worked in San Francisco for five years and in Cleveland for 18; I love both cities. But quality in the San Francisco legal community runs deeper than it does in Cleveland. That’s because top-notch people are scrambling to move to San Francisco (it turns out that winter is optional) and fewer top-notch people are scrambling to move to Cleveland (where you’ll always be viewed as an outsider unless you graduated from Heights High). You can find great lawyers in many cities, but quality falls off more quickly in locations that are less desirable.)

Thus, when the New York firm picks up offices in Pittsburgh and Detroit, there’s only a slim chance that lawyers at the firm remain of a consistently high quality. Over time, the problem compounds itself as the less competent partners in the weaker offices make a bunch of partnership decisions. The candidate for partner may be perfectly good by Oshkosh standards, but may be quite weak from a New York perspective. But the Oshkoshers have the most exposure to the candidate, they lobby hard on his behalf, and he’s elected to partnership. Poof! When you hire Bigg & Mediocre, quality can no longer be assumed.

It’s not just expansion by merger that causes great firms to lose control of quality; expansion by lateral hiring poses the same risk. Firms typically don’t scour the lateral market for “great lawyers, whether or not they have portable business or would add a needed capacity to the firm.” Rather, firms are looking for laterals with either (1) portable business generally, (2) a specific portable practice, or (3) experience in a particular practice area. Hire a guy with a portable practice and you may or may not have hired a great lawyer; unlike your home-grown associates, you probably haven’t worked closely with the lateral over a period of years, and you’re taking on faith his competence.

The lateral then brings along three associates. What of quality now?

A year later, the Oshkosh gang lobbies to admit into the partnership a guy who’s only a passable lawyer, but he’s an awfully decent fellow with a one handicap and real potential as a rainmaker. What of quality now?

Meanwhile, Lysander in New York has worked closely with an associate and really likes the guy. “The associate may not knock your socks off, but this firm has lots of partners who aren’t capable of being lead counsel in a major case. And, if [insert name of heavy-hitting rainmaker] can make someone a partner at this firm, then I can, too. Watch me make this guy partner!”

I’ll watch, but I’ll wonder how you can later insist that, “If you’re using Bigg & Mediocre, then quality is assumed.”

There are surely firms that have carefully controlled the quality of their lawyers and now have a line-up that resembles the 1927 Yankees. But that’s no longer the typical firm, and it’s time to stop pretending.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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